The question of understanding and interpreting literature is one of those that have kept all great minds thinking. The question of history, in its turn, is even more controversial, as it has been written and re-written so many times that we cannot be sure which version to take as granted. However, history is not only facts written in textbooks, but it is also literature, the written word, often so precise that it leaves no doubts. America, a country with a disputable and troubled heritage, has been quite successful in telling their history from their point of view, making themselves and the world believe in their vision. Unfortunately, no vision is ideal. In the short story “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author reveals the ugliest faults of American history, introducing us to the history of an exceptional nation capable of both great and horrible things.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the most prominent figures of the American Renaissance, is known for his thought-provoking multi-layer writing in which he was not afraid to raise controversial topics of religion, sin and people’s dual nature. It is truly remarkable, how he managed to make a short story such as “Young Goodman Brown” so abundant in quite obvious allusions to the events that most Americans are not proud of. The very first line of the story gives us the first hint. There we see the name of the town which has become the capital of frightening and tragic events back in the colonial New England: “Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village; ” (Hawthorne, 1) This town is now referred to as the place of origin of the concept of witch-hunting – though the first known use of witch hunt in its modern sense was not earlier than 1885 (Merriam-Webster) – and is a suitable setting for the events taking place in the story. It is an interesting fact that this town had a personal meaning for Hawthorne himself. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Salem was his birthplace and his family had strong ties with the town for many generations. One of his ancestors was a judge in the famous Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 (Encyclopaedia Britannica). This legacy could not have been easy to bear for such a progressive thinker as Hawthorne, but in his work, he displays courage to admit the past and give food for thought for the future. The professor of the University of Texas Fannye N. Cherry begins her article on the sources of the work in question with the statement that “In its characters, setting, and descriptive details the story of ‘Young Goodman Brown’ reproduces the witch-haunted Salem of Hawthorne’s ancestors; .” (Cherry, 342) From this, we can conclude that Hawthorne did not try to escape his past, but recognized it and pointed out the real and the symbolic meanings of the town not only for himself but for the whole American nation.
As we know, Salem also happened to be the heart of Puritanism. In “Young Goodman Brown”, it is easy to trace the author’s questioning of the moral values of people practising this religion. The contradiction between the community that is supposed to believe in “the common good” (Frey, 1573), honesty, and justice, and the actual life its members lead is raised to the uppermost level. For instance, the contrast between the choice of the name of Goodman’s wife, Faith, and the actual loss of faith and hope for Goodman when she is being led to the altar in the forest (Hawthorne, 9) gives us the notion that everything that is one thing on the surface may eventually turn out to be different on the inside. Other multiple contrasts like witches teaching religion (Hawthorne, 4), and the deacon turning out to be one of the Devil’s disciples (Hawthorne, 5) seems to be shouting that American society is as flawed as any other and cannot be taken as a paragon of purity and perfection.
Another allusion to an issue about which the American nation has always been concerned is hidden in the story, and that is the Indian question. Walking through the forest along the creepy path that leads the protagonist straight to his dishonourable destination Goodman is afraid to be attacked by an Indian. “ ’There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree,’ said Goodman Brown to himself; and he glanced fearfully behind him ” (Hawthorne, 2) This exact wording “a devilish Indian” shows us that an Indian is ranked together with the Devil himself in the mind of a good religious American. This remark has likely been chosen by the author to expose the controversy between how the colonists viewed the members of this nation and what atrocities they were ready to commit to free themselves from their “problem”. Here comes a question: who does the author think the real enemy is? “Evil is the nature of mankind.” (Hawthorne, 9) Here is the answer we seek. Everyone is capable of doing evil and most of us have made use of this side of our nature for one reason or another.
This question of the double nature of the human race is one of the leading motifs in the story. Hawthorne proves that being a good citizen and performing civil and religious duties properly does not necessarily mean that the person has strong moral values and is ready to stay true to them when tested. It is not only shown on the example of all the “good” people from the community, but on the example of the protagonist himself. The decisions he makes lead him to an inevitable transformation when he can no longer stay good and faithful. Or we might as well ask if he was ever good. Paul J. Hurley believes that “the pervasive sense of evil in the story is not separate from or outside its protagonist; it is in and of him” (Hurley, 412) It is easily proved if we look at the beginning of the story where we find out about Goodman’s “present evil purpose” (Hawthorne, 1) There is no mentioning of how such an idea came to him or why he did not reject it at once and did not refuse to go, as a good pious man would do. This idea must have been tempting and enticing for Goodman as any forbidden knowledge would have been. It must have planted the seeds of doubt and interest, but only the existence of darkness and evil in his soul explains why he choose to go along this path. This way the author proves that the existence of darkness in everyone is what explains social, moral and other injustices that have ever happened not only in American history but in the history of the entire humankind.
Along with darkness often comes disenchantment. “The next morning young Goodman Brown came slowly into the street of Salem village, staring around him like a bewildered man.” (Hawthorne, 9) The protagonist lost his faith in everything around him after what he experienced. A man can move on even when he sees sin around him but still believes that he himself can be saved. That is not the case with Goodman: “ a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.” (Hawthorne, 10) After the encounter with his own wickedness, he could no longer stay the same, he never recovered. By depicting such a glum picture, the author wants to show us the harsh reality of life. However, this also proves the opposite: despite some individual examples, the spirit of the nation cannot be easily broken. Even disappointed, people try to gather up courage and go along. If not for that, America would have been in ruins long ago.
Not surprisingly, the question of slavery finds its place in the story as well. There is no direct reference to it in the text, and one may argue that it is not present there at all. To prove the opposite, let us look at the following sentence closely: “The clock of the Old South was striking as I came through Boston .” (Hawthorne, 2) Here it is – “the clock of the Old South”, the reference to the church which has become one of the symbols of American resistance and independence, and which is “the most historic of all American churches”. “ is it identified with those events which preceded and precipitated the disruption of the bond between the American colonies and the mother country, .” (Burdett, 3) Apart from being a place of political and religious importance, as we can see from the cited extract, the Church was also connected with the abolitionist movement. Fighting for the rights of Afro-Americans has always been a sore point for both the oppressors and the oppressed. The fact that the American nation, that always strived for prosperity and equality for all its citizens, kept exploiting people of this other race for more than two centuries is shocking. There can be no moral explanation to this and not a single sufficient excuse can be found for slavery. Nevertheless, these double standards make a part of American history and constitute one of its greatest faults. The present-day America would not be the same, but for all its rises and downfalls, and that is what such writers as Hawthorne manifested through their works.
Coming close to the end, there is one more issue worth mentioning. If we think about the original witchcraft trials and the legacy they left, a popular image of a devilish creature appears in our mind. That creature is in most cases female. Though there is no direct reference in this Hawthorne’s work to the problem of women’s rights and their place in the society, it is still easy to make the connections between the phenomenon of burning women alive with the question of gender inequalities. Here it is important to understand that during the author’s lifetime no sufficient progress on this problem was made and the voices of those who fought for equality between men and women still had a long way to go to be heard. However, looking at his other works, for example, The Scarlett Letter (1850), we notice that he was not afraid to raise the complicated topic of women’s rights, and through the portraits of his heroines and his attitude towards them, he tried to defend their virtue and even advocated for them.
As can be seen, American history cannot be treated as something merely black-and-white. It is complex and controversial, it is a history of a striving nation fighting for its voice, which is proved in “Young Goodman Brown”. Hawthorne’s sharp and witty writing demonstrates both his bitterness about its flaws and vices and his pride in his nation as the one that has great future and that hopefully knows how to learn by its own mistakes.
- Burdett, Everett Watson. History of the Old South Meeting-house in Boston. Volume 50; Volume 282. B. B. Russell, 1877. books.google.cz/books?hl=en&lr=&id= QXURAAAAYAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA3&dq=History+of+the+Old+South+Meeting-house+in+Boston&ots=9twMkf8Z8t&sig=kpVbPFvM6rWDRjXahudPb_ exKlU&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=History%20of%20the%20Old%20South%20Meeting-house%20in%20Boston&f=false. Accessed 26 December 2019.
- Cherry, Fannye N. “The Sources of Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” American Literature, vol. 5, no. 4, 1934, pp. 342–348. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2919750.
- Frey, Donald E. “Individualist Economic Values and Self-Interest: The Problem in the Puritan Ethic.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 17, no. 14, 1998, pp. 1573–1580. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25073991.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown”. The New-England Magazine, 1835. 18.104.22.168/bitstream/handle/123456789/132730/Young_Goodman_Brown_%28Nathaniel_Hawthorne_1835%29.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y. Accessed 21 December 2019.
- Hurley, Paul J. “Young Goodman Brown’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’” American Literature, vol. 37, no. 4, 1966, pp. 410–419. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2923136.
- [bookmark: _Hlk27936373]The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 6 November 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Nathaniel-Hawthorne. Accessed 21 December 2019.
- “Witch hunt.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/witch%20hunt. Accessed 21 December 2019.